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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane School Board President Mike Wiser on ‘figuring out what each child needs’

Michael Wiser, the new president of the board of directors at Spokane Public Schools.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

In a time when people tend to talk first and listen hardly at all, Mike Wiser might just be the right person at the right time for Spokane County’s largest school district.

Elected last month as president of the Spokane Public Schools board of directors, Wiser can’t promise that all students will be above average or even that the educational experience will soon return to normal.

However, he promises to listen, a virtue not lost on those who know him best.

“One of the most impressive things about Mike is that he can enter a conversation with a certain thought but takes into account all perspectives and adjusts his take,” said Jerrall Haynes, who preceded Wiser as board president.

“He’s a man of very few words,” Haynes said. “But when he speaks, it’s impactful. He’s also driven by the data, and he’s very patient.”

The virtue of patience has been amplified by the times and contentious issues of equity, sex education and a pandemic that for a third straight year has disrupted the world of education.

On top of that, the district has dealt with fractures around the issues of new boundaries and where to build a new stadium. In both cases, Wiser offered a healthy dose of informed skepticism before agreeing to move ahead.

“I like to think of myself as a good listener, and my leadership style is going to be making sure that all voices are heard and understood,” Wiser said recently.

Those people include families who are still waiting for educational equity to be less theoretical and more impactful in the lives of their children.

“The ones I worry about are the ones who aren’t engaging,” Wiser said. “There is no easy answer to the equation. … But what we’re undertaking is focused on, what are the options that we can offer families across the district in a way that makes it accessible to everybody?”

That issue hit the front burner last summer, as the district redrew boundaries to accommodate the addition of three new middle schools and the impending shift of sixth-graders to those buildings.

The plan drew heavy criticism for its emphasis on keeping students together – “cohorting” – at the expense of widening the socioeconomic disparities among schools.

Though raised on the South Hill and still living there, Wiser didn’t go along with the plan until the district promised to explore more options such as magnet schools for disadvantaged students.

“That’s what’s at the core of this: figuring out what each child needs,” said Wiser, the Chief Strategy Officer at CHAS Health, where his wife is a physician.

A Spokane native, Wiser graduated from Lewis and Clark High School class of 1990 and left Spokane for college in Seattle and later Chicago.

He was still there in 2004, traveling as a business consultant while his wife, Deborah Wiser, was in medical school.

But like many natives, he returned to Spokane, “Where there’s good restaurants without the traffic.”

And as they say, it’s a great place to raise a family. Wiser opted to stay home with two young daughters.

When Wiser figured he wasn’t the only dad in town taking care of kids, he started a group called Spokane Dads. The organization’s mission was straightforward: to provide a regular opportunity for kids and dads to socialize.

A few years later, Wiser was on the leadership team for the Apple program at Jefferson Elementary School. The affiliation gave him a chance to connect with district leadership.

“It was always in the back of my mind: That it would be fun to run for public office at some point,” Wiser said.

As it turned out, Wiser was appointed in March 2017 to fill the remaining eight months of the term of Bob Douthitt, who had resigned.

However, Wiser’s priorities included closing the achievement gap and reducing class sizes while increasing choices for families – not realistic in such a short time frame.

Adding to the pressure, Wiser had only a few weeks to decide on whether to run for a full six-year term.

“It takes about a year to get up to speed,” Wiser said.

Elected to a full term that fall, Wiser did just that.

Big issues came in a trickle, then a rush.

In 2018, the district moved ahead with a landmark $495 million capital bond; nine months later, it faced a crippling deficit that led to layoffs.

Nine months after that came the pandemic. Wiser was there for the big decisions – the move to remote learning and the slow road back – while sharing the struggles of other parents stuck at home.

“It wasn’t perfect,” Wiser said, recalling the struggles with remote learning. “But I’m proud of how well we engaged with the community in the transition back to hybrid.”